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    Is It OK To Eat Cloned Fruit?
    By Steve Savage | April 28th 2013 06:24 PM | 12 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
    About Steve

    Trained as a plant pathologist (Ph.D. UC Davis 1982), I've worked now for >30 years in many aspects of agricultural technology (Colorado State...

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    Cloned fruit is widely sold in grocery stores.  Some of it is even cloned mutant fruit.  None of these fruits are labeled as such.  They aren't even regulated. You can't avoid this kind of fruit by going to Whole Foods or Trader Joe's.  Should you be concerned?

    Actually,  almost all fruit is cloned for good reasons that I will describe below.  I like to use this question as a way to show people how emotive language can be used to make something ordinary sound scary.  That is why a healthy dose of skepticism is needed as we encounter so many alarmist allegations about our food supply.  The danger is getting drawn into a conspiracy-theory mindset which leaves people unable to listen to reasoned explanation.

    The Advance of the Clones

    Yes, virtually all fruit is technically "cloned" because it is not grown from seed.  Cloning means the genetics of the offspring are identical to the parent.  For fruit, this has been the means of propagation for centuries.  

    If you plant the seeds from say, an apple variety that you particularly enjoy - several years later you will be disappointed to find that the fruit is not at all like the one you originally ate.  It will probably be more like a crab apple.  People long ago discovered that desirable specimens must be propagated by rooting, grafting, or budding onto some other root stock, and all of those are means of cloning.  And yes, some fruit varieties were developed using mutation breeding. The Ruby Red Grapefruit is an example I enjoy on a regular basis.  Nectarines are a spontaneous mutant of a peach which lacked the fuzz.

    But What About Johnny Apple Seed?

    As children we all heard the mythologized story of Johnny Apple Seed who supposedly planted apple trees across the US for the benefit of little children.  As Michael Pollan so nicely explains in his book "The Botany of Desire," Johnny was just opportunistically starting apple tree nurseries at the front of Western settlement because of a provision in the Homestead Act which required each land recipient to cultivate 40 apple trees.  Johnny was there sell them what they needed.  The actual goal was to insure that the settlers would be able to make their own alcohol supply in the form of hard cider (how's that for a "nanny state!"). For cider, it didn't much matter what sort of fruit was produced, so the variable seedling trees were acceptable.  If the settler wanted a good eating apple they could graft a branch of it onto Johnny's seedlings.  Today, the rootstocks for most fruit trees are selected for specific dwarfing and/or pest resistance traits and also clonally propagated.

    Nature Also Clones

    Cloning sounds creepy to us because it isn't something that happens naturally in mammals.  Among animals like insects, worms and some amphibians there is a fair amount of non-sexual reproduction we typically call parthenogenesis - but it is a form of cloning because the offspring are genetically identical to the parent.  Plants use clonal reproduction widely.  Bananas generate "sons" that bud off at the base of an existing trunk.  Grapevine canes on the ground or which get buried will sprout roots and generate a new, independent plant.  Whole groves of aspen trees can be clones that arise from the root system.

    There is desert shrub called Guayule, which is being developed as a new, sustainable source of natural rubber.  It produces seed both through regular sexual reproduction and also through a process called apomixis.  The seed looks normal, but it is genetically identical to the mother plant (thus technically a clone).  Plant breeders would like to find a way to generate apomictic seed of major crops to avoid either expensive hybrid seed production or to avoid the extensive back-crossing needed to develop a line that will "breed true."

    Cloning Does Limit Genetic Diversity

    While cloning provides us with high quality fruit, it limits the germplasm in use for some crops. There may be plenty of genetic diversity where a crop originated, but breeding diversity into elite lines is a very slow process for perennial plants.  It would be far more efficient to move selected genes, such as those for disease resistance. Genes for disease resistance were moved from wild potatoes into commercial potatoes by a famous European public institution using genetic engineering. 

    Examples of landrace potatoes from Peru which were the source of the resistance genes

    This trait could be extremely helpful for European farmers, but it has predictably been opposed by anti-GMO activists. Yet, strangely, no one seems to worry about the crops developed decades ago by very clumsy methods of mutation breeding involving the use of radiation or toxic chemicals.  Although the track record of such crop improvements has been positive, there is a far more reasonable basis for concern with that method than with genetic engineering.

    So, what is the purpose of this botany lesson?  I guess I'm trying to make the point that not everything that can be made to sound scary about food is really scary. Think about that the next time you enjoy some cloned fruit!

    You are welcome to comment here and/or to email me as savage dot sd at gmail dot com

    Cloned apple image started from Ala_z via Wikimedia.  Apple seed image from Artotem.  Andean potato image from Wikimedia commons


    Bonny Bonobo alias Brat
    Interesting article Steve. It seems amazing to me that we allow our extremely vital world fruit supplies to become so lacking in genetic diversity with all the risks of disease and sudden extinction that this entails, especially as many of these fruits are often not even possible to grow from seeds any more, as you pointed out. I suppose that this is another area where genetic engineering and modifications are likely to be very useful in the future.
    The Wikipedia article about bananas for example says that 'while in no danger of outright extinction, the most common edible banana cultivar Cavendish (extremely popular in Europe and the Americas) could become unviable for large-scale cultivation in the next 10–20 years. Its predecessor 'Gros Michel', discovered in the 1820s, suffered this fate. Like almost all bananas, Cavendish lacks genetic diversity, which makes it vulnerable to diseases, threatening both commercial cultivation and small-scale subsistence farming. Some commentators remarked that those variants which could replace what much of the world considers a "typical banana" are so different that most people would not consider them the same fruit, and blame the decline of the banana on monogenetic cultivation driven by short-term commercial motives.'

    A couple of years ago here in Australia, a large banana growing area in Queensland was devastated by a hurricane and all of a sudden we were saying 'yes we have no bananas'. 
    My article about researchers identifying a potential blue green algae cause & L-Serine treatment for Lou Gehrig's ALS, MND, Parkinsons & Alzheimers is at http://www.science20.com/forums/medicine
    I remember Spike Jones very well, though his “Yes, We have no Bananas” is new to me.
    The record was issued in 1950, which explains the reference to the “devaluated pound”.
    Robert H. Olley / Quondam Physics Department / University of Reading / England
    Bananas are definitely the extreme case.  The entire export banana business is based on the Cavendish and if Fusarium Tropical Race 4 ever gets to the Americas, it could destroy the industry.  All the famous wine grape varieties of Europe (Vitis vinifera) are highly susceptible to a downy mildew pathogen which came to Europe in the 1870s when the English brought back native American grapes like Vitis labrusca.  The American grape species and hybrids with V. vinifera are more disease tolerant, but no one is going to stop growing the higher quality varieties. 
    Steve Savage
    Bonny Bonobo alias Brat
    Presumably there are government agencies all over the world, like the CSIRO in Australia, that are working to improve the genetic diversity of the banana? If not then surely they should be before disaster strikes? Wiki's picture of this wild banana full of large viable seeds looks really interesting, I wonder what it tastes like? Being able to grow bananas from seeds again would be one way of really helping to improve the genetic diversity of the banana wouldn't it?

    We used to own a lychee farm and  all of our 3000 trees were originally grafted onto existing root stock over 35 years ago, by an expert horticulturist who had planned to retire to our farm but unfortunately died of liver cancer before he could do this. Lychee trees can easily live for over a hundred years if they are allowed to but the new owner of our farm has now cut down most of these trees, even though they produced tons of large, beautiful, juicy, red lychees every year. Like us he found it almost impossible to compete with the large Australian supermarket chains stacking their shelves with cheap, imported, irradiated, small, pretty tasteless lychees from Vietnam and China. 

    During the years we were operating this farm we also generated some income from allowing local nurseries to cultivate thousands of air layered, cloned small trees by marcotting our trees, by girdling a strip of bark and interrupting the cambium on a nicely shaped branch.  A handful of moist rooting material contained in a sheet of foil or plastic is applied around the bare strip and over a period of a few months roots form in this plastic container. When the plastic ball is fully filled with roots the branch is cut off below the strip and planted either in a container or directly into the ground. An air layered or marcotted tree, unlike a grafted tree, does not possess a tap root. Instead, an air-layer will form a relatively large spreading root system. This larger root system will lead to accelerated growth. 

    Lychee seeds can sometimes be used just to grow the root stock tree and then afterwards air layers are often grafted onto this root stock seedling. So like the banana tree, lychee trees are also being cloned in their thousands and are very lacking in genetic diversity and therefore very prone in the future to being wiped out quite easily with diseases. The CSIRO does research into diseases affecting lychees, hopefully they are also researching methods of improving their genetic diversity. As I said above, I would have thought that genetic engineering could be very useful for doing this?
    My article about researchers identifying a potential blue green algae cause & L-Serine treatment for Lou Gehrig's ALS, MND, Parkinsons & Alzheimers is at http://www.science20.com/forums/medicine
    Helen,I'm sure there are some efforts underway to do something about bananas, but because it is a very branded commodity, I'd be surprised if they would take the marketing risk to use a transgenic solution.  Its sad.

    Thanks for the interesting description of the lychee.  I love that flavor - it is the chemical linalool which is also found in muscat, gewurztraminer and riesling grapes.
    Steve Savage
    Bonny Bonobo alias Brat
    Helen,I'm sure there are some efforts underway to do something about bananas, but because it is a very branded commodity, I'd be surprised if they would take the marketing risk to use a transgenic solution.  Its sad.
    Sorry Steve, I don't understand what you are saying here? Can you explain why a branded commodity makes a transgenic solution a marketing risk please?
    My article about researchers identifying a potential blue green algae cause & L-Serine treatment for Lou Gehrig's ALS, MND, Parkinsons & Alzheimers is at http://www.science20.com/forums/medicine
    Sure.  Very early on anti-GMO activists realized that their most effective strategy would be to threaten companies with major consumer brands with protests in front of their stores/restaurants if they used GMO foods.  That is why MacDonalds unilaterally ended the growing of biotech potatoes after just a few years - there had been, since 1996, a Bt-Potato that didn't need to be sprayed for Colorado Potato Beetle and there were virus resistant types coming as well which would have made it unnecessary to spray for aphids.  The growers loved this, but in three phone calls to the major frozen fry companies that all ended - not because of any real issue, but because brand is super important to MacDonalds and they didn't want controversy.  Frito-Lay had its own biotech potato program, but by the late 1990s it was killed because the marketing folks had made a promise of no GMO even without realizing that they were working on some very cool traits.   

    I, and others, were actually in conversations with Starbucks in that same mid 90s time frame about considering whether biotech could help the coffee industry deal with the growing demand for high quality, Arabica coffee and some of their significant production issues.  Once the anti-biotech thing started, they dropped that concept like a hot potato (pun intended).  

    Major banana importers were once looking at biotech as a way to deal with major diseases and to make the on-counter life of the banana longer to limit waste.  That all quietly ended once the anti-GMO thing started because Dole, Chiquita etc are too valuable a brand to associate with any controversey.  They may lose their entire business because of this.  

    The big brands in the candy industry delayed for many years the introduction of herbicide tolerant sugar beets, something that growers adopted at 95% the first year they finally became available.  The European and Japanese wheat and flour importers essentially blackmailed the US and Canadian wheat growers to kill biotech wheat because they didn't want to have to label any of their products in those GMO-paranoid markets.  

    The Apple Industry has come out against commercialization of the Arctic Apple - a consumer-oriented, grower-driven, offering.  They are worried about the "Apple" brand for some good reason remembering "Alar."

    Brand protectionism has been the single most powerful, completely non-scientific and non-regulatory barrier to the expansion of biotechnology.  I don't really see that ever changing.  We don't live in a rational world
    Steve Savage
    Gerhard Adam

    I think you're certainly right about the science, but I also think that this isn't really about that as much as it reflects the continuing schism of people's distrust of power [government and corporate].

    I know I often get written off as being anti-corporate, but I'm really not.  I think that corporations can be useful, but I think if you were to ask people just one question; "if it came to a choice between your safety and profits, which do you think they would choose?" and I think you know what the majority of people would respond.

    This didn't happen overnight.  This has built up for many reasons, but there's a growing perception that people no longer count.  Everything from the perception about government bail-outs, to outsourcing, to the pollution scandals over the past few decades.  Each has played a role in portraying corporate interests as being amoral. 

    We've seen it with the charges of unethical drug testing in India to the recent building collapse in Bangaledesh.  Again, each emphasizes a rabid desire to cut costs with the perception that it doesn't matter who suffers.  In fact, the belief is that many of these companies are operating overseas for precisely that reason, because they know the laws aren't as strict.

    Is it fair?  No.  But then it's a problem of their own making.  Even regarding GMO's, instead of having an open dialogue about it, it's the activists that draw public attention to it, and then the companies and scientists come afterwards looking like they were trying to hide something [which I know isn't true, but that's how it appears].  It makes all the explanations, no matter how reasonable, look like "damage control".

    So, this isn't about people being rational.  It's about trust, and unfortunately, it's been sorely abused to many people, so their default position is that whoever is speaking must be lying.  Think about how many times someone's been accused of being a shill for the food industry or pharmaceuticals.  This certainly isn't because people trust these industries.  They've been inundated with the spin doctors and the advertisers, and everyone that has something to sell.  They're not buying it, even when it may be good for them.

    This is nothing new.  We're seeing it in everything ranging from more vocal opposition to something like evolution, to challenging climate change.  If you look at the overall mood, even politically, there's nothing but rhetoric blaming people from wanting entitlements to being lazy to not doing their fair share to just being stupid, all espoused by those making 6 or 7 digit salaries.  Yeah ... that'll work.

    So, while you may think that I'm off on a tangent, my point is simply that when it comes to something like their food, you'll certainly have some activists, but they don't have enough political clout to really affect change.  Instead you'll have the majority of people lend passive support, because they're tired of being lied to and manipulated, so given the choice its simply easier to say no.
    Mundus vult decipi
    Gerhard,Activists have way more clout than you acknowledge.  Mark Lynas openly admits that his anti-GMO activities were extremely effective, and they were.  Yes, people are tired of being lied to, but that is not just an experience from "corporations."  I heard an interview with David Bronner of Dr. Bronners Soap on NPR today about the GMO labeling bill my senator Boxer has introduced in the US congress.  He said so many completely wrong and/or misleading things it was stunning.  Steve Briggs of UCSD countered some of it, but NPR, my favorite radio station, effectively propagated dozens of "lies."  I know the scientists at companies like Monsanto, DuPont/Pioneer, Syngenta, Dow, Bayer, BASF and they are working diligently on the development of technologies that will make agriculture both more productive and more sustainable.  Activists demonize all of these people and their sincere efforts.  The activists are the liars.
    Steve Savage
    Gerhard Adam
    Don't get me wrong.  I'm certainly not accusing the scientists of anything.  Yes, activists are liars, along with the politicians and many corporations.  The whole lot of them are simply political propagandists pushing agendas. 

    You may be right, regarding the effectiveness of activists, but my point remains.  The public is tired of all of it, and in that respect, the activists are simply another special interest group playing on the distrust the general public has.  However, the recent article describing the survey of attitudes towards organic foods, indicated that most people are more inclined to believe that it's about marketing than it is about health.
    Mundus vult decipi
    Again, each emphasizes a rabid desire to cut costs with the perception that it doesn't matter who suffers.

    I think this is a huge distortion, sure it happens, but you can make the same argument about people and governments wanting money from others no matter who suffers.

    to challenging climate change. 

    Few challenge that it's changing, it always changes, it's the why that's the argument. And I know you'll say we just want to figure out what's happening, except that the activists aren't waiting to figure out why, they think they know why, and they know what they want done.
    but they don't have enough political clout to really affect change
    If you think this is true, you haven't been paying attention.

    If you look at the overall mood, even politically, there's nothing but rhetoric blaming people from wanting entitlements to being lazy to not doing their fair share to just being stupid, all espoused by those making 6 or 7 digit salaries.

    You forgot the rhetoric that the 10% who are paying 70% of the taxes aren't paying their fair share, all espoused by people who pay almost no Fed income taxes.
    Never is a long time.
    Greg M.
    Great article, Steve.
    Begin with this assumption: it's all a joke. Then you will see the humour in everything.